While farmers have been moving to cities for decades, the government now
says the rate is too slow. An urbanization blueprint that is due to be unveiled
this year would have 21 million people a year move into cities. But as is often
the case in China, formal plans only codify what is already happening. Besides
the southern Shaanxi project, removals are being carried out in other areas,
too: in Ningxia, 350,000 villagers are to be moved, while as many as two
million transfers are expected in Guizhou Province by 2020.
All told, 250 million
more Chinese may live in cities in the next dozen years. The rush to
urbanize comes despite concerns that many rural residents cannot find jobs in
the new urban areas or are simply unwilling to leave behind a way of life that
The push has the support of the highest reaches of the
government, with the new prime minister, Li Keqiang, a strong proponent of
accelerated urbanization. The campaign to depopulate the countryside is seen as
the best way to maintain China’s spectacular run of fast economic growth, with
new city dwellers driving demand for decades to come.
The effort is run by officials like Mr. Li in Xi’an,
who speaks emotionally about wanting to help push China’s 700 million rural
residents into the 21st century. Heirs to imperial China’s Mandarin officials,
modern-day Communist Party officials like Mr. Li speak knowingly of what is
best for China’s 1.3 billion people, where they should live and how they should
earn a living.
“An objective rule in the process of modernization,” he
said, “is we have to complete the process of urbanization and
Chinese government’s ambitious plan to move 250 million people from rural to
urban areas aims to create a consumer base to drive the economy.
One of the mantras that officials repeat about the
Shaanxi project is that it is voluntary, although interviews suggest that not
all of those who are being moved agree.
China’s previously largest migration project was to
resettle about 1.2 million people for the Three Gorges Dam. That was mandatory:
villages and towns were flooded, and people had no choice but to move. This new
effort will take place over a decade or more, and those who wish to stay on the
farm may do so, at least for a while, officials say. They promise generous
subsidies for moving and a better standard of living, including jobs, in the
new urban areas.
But in the mountains 200 miles south of Mr. Li’s
offices, one of the project’s showpieces illustrates the complications he
faces. The onetime village of Qiyan became a focus of national attention in
2010 when a landslide in a nearby ravine killed 29 people. Provincial leaders
immediately made the disaster a case study of why the removals were necessary.
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